Home Is Where the Junk Is

At 80, author E.L. Doctorow is still observing the passing parade with a keen eye and playing with the structures of modern myths.

Masha Zur-Glozman
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E.L. Doctorow.Credit: Image Bank / Getty Images
Masha Zur-Glozman

The short story "The Writer in the Family," by E.L. Doctorow, told in the first person, is about a youth named Jonathan whose father has died. His aged grandmother is spending her last days in a home for the elderly. Jonathan's Aunt Frances, wishing to spare her mother unnecessary shocks, keeps the bad news from her and asks the talented Jonathan to write letters in his father's name. The story they devise is that his father is in Arizona for treatment of his chronic bronchitis. Thus the youngster hones his writing skills - on the one hand, appalled at cooperating with this desecration of the dead, but also thrilled by his surprising ability to create an alternative life for his father, in which he accomplishes what he failed to accomplish in his real life.

This little story, minor in comparison to the other great works by Doctorow - one of the finest living American writers - is like a precis of his entire oeuvre. The story, which first appeared in the collection "Lives of the Poets: Six Stories and a Novella" (1984; Hebrew-language edition, 1988 ), was apparently the seed for Doctorow's marvelous novel, "World's Fair" (1985 ) and like it, is often described as "semi-autobiographical."

Indeed, the boundary between truth and fiction in Doctorow's work has always been a very fluid one. Doctorow likes to take stories from American folklore, well-known figures or familiar episodes and retell them through the prism of his personal interpretation. From this point of view, he is a successor to the ancient storytellers, who added new layers to famous myths, affording their listeners a surprising new slant on what they thought they already knew.

Edgar Lawrence Doctorow, who celebrated his 80th birthday last month, was born in the Bronx to a Jewish family with roots in Eastern Europe. He studied philosophy at Kenyon College in Ohio and did graduate work at Columbia University. As a young man he worked at Columbia Pictures and CBS Television, writing plot summaries of stories that were considered likely prospects for film adaptation. In the 1960s he was a senior editor at New American Library, a paperback publisher, and afterward chief editor at The Dial Press. Doctorow has published 11 novels in the past 50 years, in addition to short story collections, essays and plays. His highly acclaimed, sweeping novel "Ragtime" (1975 ), which was also made into a film and a Broadway musical, is a richly detailed tapestry of historical and fictional characters, an illuminating examination of Americana in the formative first two decades of the 20th century. Among those who appear in the riveting plot about the intertwined fates of a few families from wholly different classes and colors, are Evelyn Nesbit, a glamour girl whose name is linked with affairs of jealousy and murder; Emma Goldman, one of the most articulate members of the anarchist movement; Harry Houdini, the escape artist; and many others. Doctorow accords them all equal literary living space and presents them with all their virtues and vices, their passions and fears.

Doctorow's greatness lies in his ability to examine abstract ideas like family life, free will, individual freedom and personal and collective loyalty - not as detached philosophical concepts, but as values that infuse everyday reality. He presents these values not in contradistinction to other philosophical values, but in terms of human foibles, by means of his favorite literary method, historical fictionalizing. As in "Ragtime," in "The Book of Daniel" - a loose retelling of the story of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, the alleged atom spies who were executed in 1953 - Doctorow transforms iconic figures (in this case considered demonic in the collective American consciousness ) into people of flesh and blood. In a literary evening with readers in New York in 2006, Doctorow explained why he chose to create fictional characters in his novel about the real Rosenberg couple: "I didn't want to write about the Rosenbergs; I wanted to write about what happened to them."

That is also Doctorow's strategy in his latest novel, "Homer and Langley" (2009, Random House; Hebrew-language version published by Yedioth Books and Simanim, 2010 ). The Collyer brothers, Homer and Langley, were real people who were born into an affluent, respected New York family that lived on Fifth Avenue for most of the first half of the 20th century. They entered the sizable American pantheon of eccentric culture heroes thanks to the mysterious, reclusive lives they led, their alienation from and revolt against every type of establishment and authority, and the discovery of their bodies in the late 1940s in their large home, which turned out to be crammed with well over a hundred tons of junk accumulated during decades of obsessive-compulsive hoarding.

"I was not fascinated, but I knew about them," Doctorow relates in an e-mail interview. "They were folklore. Children were warned to straighten their rooms if they didn't want to grow up to be like the Collyer brothers. The press treated them as bizarre eccentrics, figures of fun. A few years ago I began to wonder why they had opted out. That was the first question. The hoarding was after the fact. The Collyers were from a well-to-do family, they had money, yet they had gone into that house, self-exiled as if to another country. Why? Thinking about that got me writing the book."

"Homer and Langley" is not consistent with the dry documented details; in fact, to some degree it conflicts with reality. In the book - in contrast to the historical record - Homer is the younger brother and Langley the elder, and both live until the 1970s (apparently ), whereas in reality they both died in 1947. Doctorow would seem to have distorted these facts consciously and demonstratively, perhaps to declare his disloyalty to the objective truth, creating "what might have been" at the expense of "what is known."

"I did almost none," Doctorow replies in the interview to a question about how much research he did. "I looked at photographs of the inside of their house and noted the things carted away by the Police and Fire departments after their death. I was not interested in the clinical details of their Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. I saw them as mythic figures not to be reported upon but to be interpreted. I thought about them as representative men."

As portrayed by Doctorow, the figures of Homer and Langley are people who survived rather like armless busts from a past era, sons of a time in which beauty overrode utilitarianism, and often also justice. The book begins with the non-melodramatic blinding of Homer, the narrator, as a youth in the first decade of the last century: "When I was told what was happening I was interested to measure it, I was in my late teens then, keen on everything ...." Doctorow's description of the development of Homer's perception of reality in the wake of his blindness shows the author's sensitivity at the height of its power: "I feel shapes as they push the air away, or I feel heat from things, you can turn me around till I'm dizzy, but I can still tell where the air is filled in with something solid...."

Homer is good-tempered, and a talented, gentle musician who likes to please those in his surroundings - which over the years narrow down to just one person, his older brother. Langley, in contrast, is an angry seeker of justice who is inclined to rebel against authority and seek the sublime. Shortly before he is drafted to fight in the First World War, from which he will return emotionally scarred and with a creaking voice, he starts to develop his "theory of replacements." Its essence is that "everything in life gets replaced" and that time advances through us as we replace previous slots of geniuses, baseball players, or simply our parents.

This theory, of which Homer says, "there was something collegiate about it," stirs in Langley the urge to start collecting daily newspapers. In time, this urge becomes the most cogent expression of an obsessive desire to hoard, which in turn leads Langley to come up with one of the oddest, yet most intriguing, philosophical ideas that appear in the book: "Collyer's eternally current dateless newspaper."

According to Langley, it is possible to create a kind of permanent daily edition of all the news events reported in the newspapers by statistically selecting the events that constitute "seminal human behavior."

Doctorow writes: "For five cents, Langley said, the reader will have a portrait in newsprint of our life on earth. The stories will not have overly particular details as you find in ordinary daily rags, because the real news here is of the Universal Forms of which any particular detail would only be an example." This is, if you will, the press version of Plato's world of ideas and another example of Doctorow's own love of playing with the structures of modern myths. Homer and Langley continue their lives in this fashion decade after decade, responding to the events around them, trying to float along with the flotsam and jetsam of a rapidly changing social and economic reality. Over the years, Homer accompanies silent films on the piano, the brothers hook up with a terrifying mobster who finds Homer amusing, and at one stage they hold weekly dance evenings, for payment, at their home (at which their snobbish neighbors look askance ).

A police raid on a random dance evening, which forces the brothers to defend themselves against legal proceedings, triggers the process of closing themselves off from the outside world. This happens gradually and is marked by bizarre behavior, such as bringing a Model T Ford into the dining room of their spacious and once luxurious brownstone.

Drawing on a rough comparison from popular culture, we can say that Homer and Langley are something like literary doubles of Forrest Gump, as they live through important events of the 20th century, but remain faithful to themselves while everything around them changes. Homer continues to cultivate his moderate, tranquil curiosity; Langley remains an angry rebel who draws anarchistic conclusions. In the 1960s, the aging brothers hear echoes of an anti-war rally being held in Central Park, near their home. Gloomily, they decide to take a look. To Homer's immense surprise, he hears Langley joking with young people as he himself is seized with a "an oddly convivial feeling." Homer discovers that the "children," as he calls them, accept the eccentric brothers, with their long hair and sloppy dress, as their own. Very soon, and in the most natural way, a group of "children" arrive at the brothers' home and stay for a whole month.

Doctorow's Homer describes the group of hippies in tones of forgiving love and anthropological curiosity, but finally with the same shrug of the shoulders and slight sigh with which he contemplates the whole passing parade of his long life. Still, he endows them with a special grace: "Living as they did, these kids were more radical critics of society than the anti-war or civil rights people getting so much attention in the newspapers. They had no intention of trying to make things better. They had simply rejected the entire culture. If they attended that anti-war rally in the park it was because there was music there and it was pleasant to sit on the grass and drink wine and smoke their joints. They were itinerants who had chosen poverty and were too young and heedless to think what the society would eventually do to them by way of vengeance."

Homer and Langley are enchanted by the hippies and flattered that the youngsters see their home as some sort of ideal bastion of societal rejection. In the end, though, winter comes. "But none of these people could accept winter. For one thing they hadn't the stamina for it, their marginal existence demanded a beneficent climate, some steady changeless warmth in which they could survive with the least effort." They forsake the Fifth Avenue home and their going heralds the disappearance of the last spark of collective human warmth for which the brothers feel any affinity.

Doctorow, asked whether his attitude toward the hippie movement, as it is reflected in the book, is indeed composed of a mixture of mockery and fondness, replied: "Contempt's too strong a word. Say a wry affection. The hippie phenomenon was part of a cultural/political reformation in the United States in the 1960s - the anti-war movement, the civil rights movement led by Martin Luther King, the revolutionary music known as rock and roll. People's dress changed, men grew long hair, women put away their skirts for jeans. President Kennedy and his brother Robert were assassinated, Dr. King was assassinated, civil rights workers were murdered. Bombs went off. The country was in turmoil and it was not that hard to understand why the young dropped out of school, smoked dope, took to the road, went barefoot in California, slept where they could, and sang 'where have all the flowers gone.' The right, so alarmed by all of this, engineered a counter-reformation that found its apotheosis in President Reagan. The hippies abjured power and organization, they were gnostics of a sort, and so they were swept away."

The book goes on to relate the brothers' slow deterioration until the inevitable grim, unhappy end. Doctorow, however, does not pave the downward slide with melodrama. Gangs of children constantly throw stones at the windows of the mysterious house, the authorities do vigorous battle against the recalcitrant brothers and history advances relentlessly, indifferent to the fate of individuals. It is hard not to liken the brothers' degeneration and insularity to a similar process undergone by the seemingly cardinal value of the American spirit of freedom.

Doctorow, though, seems to dissociate himself from any sentimental or schematic analysis of his characters. Asked whether he has not become, over the years, somewhat bitter about the present and nostalgic for the past, the author - a tribal storyteller in modern guise, who looks with a broad perspective at history's self-convoluting vagaries - replies: "How could I be nostalgic about the 'old times'? We are back in them. Civilization is in reverse, as if time is a loop. Never mind the Enlightenment. Here we are again with religious ideologues everywhere running the show and claiming God is on their side."

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